Setting Me Free

Last year I made a pact with myself: in order to move on with my life, I need to stop thinking about the past, to stop worrying about the future, and to only focus on the present. But last night, it all brought me back to the past and once again felt all the emotions I have been trying to escape from.

Before I temporarily deactivated my Facebook a few months ago, I was answering all those silly questions that appeared on my profile page. The idea of these random questions was to learn more about the Facebook user. I remember writing, “Netflix binging” as a joke for my New Year’s resolution. It seems the joke’s on me because I find myself in front of the TV a lot lately.

Last night, I cried myself to sleep after watching Me Before You. And I don’t mean soft tears. I was actually sobbing and at times hysterical. I had an outburst of emotion, not really sure where it was coming from (most likely from my lingering PTSD). The movie’s story line does not in any way mirror my life but it somehow touched me deeply, taking me back to all the difficult memories I had at the hospital when my son was there for his cancer treatment. Then I thought of my dad and the last time we spoke before he passed away.

It must have been the subject of death and suffering that made me very emotional. Because those two things have unfortunately often touched my life in the past few years. We practically lived in the hospital for months and were surrounded by children with cancer, some in very terminal stages. I’ve seen kids who were sent home because there was nothing more that their doctors could do for them. We knew kids who passed away and after seeing their young life taken away from them, I couldn’t help but think, what is really one’s purpose on earth?

Last year I made a pact with myself: in order to move on with my life, I need to stop thinking about the past, to stop worrying about the future, and to only focus on the present. But last night, it all brought me back to the past and once again felt all the emotions I have been trying to escape from.

Another movie had me thinking of the future: Arrival (if you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it). In the movie’s ending, I was confronted with the question,”If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?” I pondered on it and honestly I’m not sure what I would do. Although if I have seen the suffering we’ve all been through, would that motivate me to change my life? Would I have married my husband knowing that we would eventually have difficult challenges, give birth to kids whose lives will become familiar with suffering—one from depression and the other from childhood cancer? My husband said he wouldn’t do anything differently. Because according to him life is all about suffering anyway (taken from the principles of Buddhism) and there’s no escaping from it.

The movie, Revolutionary Road, was perhaps the movie (out of the three I’ve seen recently) that made the biggest impact on me. The movie is about yearning for fulfillment and passion in life and seeking to escape from the conventionality of suburbia. Ah, sounds too familiar! As I desperately try to escape from conventional, something in the universe seems to conspire to always bring me back.

You might be wondering what this post’s title got to do with my Netflix binging lately. It’s me, living my life freely by laying in bed all day and binging on thought provoking movies….

Ok LOL that’s a joke!

The truth is I’ve finally woken up and realized I have been very conservative with my approach in life. By living freely is to take more risks, be more courageous, and just be able to say what the fuck! Life is too short to limit myself.

Living free also means standing my ground. On the day of my departure to France last October, my husband complained all the way to the airport when he found out I was going to be gone longer than he expected. Normally I’d budge and cut my trip shorter. Because that’s just me, always giving in and catering to other people’s needs. But I stood my ground and told him I’m not changing anything.

Living free is doing things that make ME happy and will no longer be subjected to people’s opinions. And more importantly, to not care if I’m being judged by others because they have certain moral biases. My goal is to make myself happy and fulfilled, but only according to my own definition of what “happy” is and not anyone else’s.

When travel is concerned, if you know me well, travel is my love language. I feel most alive when I’m traveling. After taking a solo trip last year, I found myself again, the person who’s been lost for quite sometime now. I recognized what truly sets me free is to escape from the humdrum of my life by traveling and exploring different countries and cultures, thus, I promised myself nothing will stop me now from doing what I love.

Going back to what my husband said, can we really not escape from suffering? Is life really all about that—pain and suffering?

Perhaps….

But today I am setting my life free by living to the fullest. To be in places I’ve dreamed about. To be happy without feeling guilt. To stop worrying about people’s opinions. And to realize that this is my life and I will live it according to my own rules.

Kong: A taste of Sex and the City in Paris

I can’t speak for all the women out there but I’m sure many of us wish we could get a little taste of the Sex and the City lifestyle. Carrie Bradshaw and her friends turned many establishments into major hotspots. An American Girl in Paris Part Une and Deux were the final two episodes filmed in Paris. In the Part Deux episode, it started with the scene at a restaurant. It was at Kong, a chic, luxurious, and uber trendy restaurant within walking distance from the Louvre. Visiting the restaurant gave me a little taste of a Sex and the City lifestyle in Paris!

If Carrie Bradshaw was a real person, it’s sad to think that someone like her wouldn’t probably be friends with someone like me. As much as I adore her, our lifestyles do not match. First of all, I don’t have a shoe collection worth $40,000! While she’s rocking her $400 five-inch Manolos in Manhattan, I’m in my Uggs, driving an SUV in the suburbs. It’d be a miracle if I met up with all my close friends once a month for lunch, she goes to brunch with hers on a weekly basis. On Friday nights, she’s most likely drinking cosmopolitans at a posh bar, while I’m in my pajamas sipping a hot chamomile tea watching Netflix.


I can’t speak for all the women out there but I’m sure many of us wish we could get a little taste of the Sex and the City lifestyle. Carrie Bradshaw and her friends turned many New York City establishments into major hotspots. Tour companies capitalized the show’s huge success and ran tours visiting some of its iconic locations. I’ve actually been to several locations such as The Boathouse in Central Park where Carrie and Big met for lunch and unintentionally swim. And in one of my trips to NYC with my older son, I took him to Buddakan, a trendy and upscale Chinese restaurant in the Meatpacking district. It was the venue for Carrie and Big’s rehearsal dinner in the series’ first movie. (By the way, my son hated this place. He described it as pretentious and mediocre food.) 😊

An American Girl in Paris Part Une and Deux were the final two episodes filmed in Paris. In the Part Deux episode, it started with the scene at a restaurant where Carrie met  Juliette (her Russian lover’s ex-wife) for lunch. It was at Kong, a chic, luxurious, and uber trendy restaurant within walking distance from the Louvre. Carrie praised the restaurant but Juliette  called it (especially the chairs) hideous!

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After spending a couple of hours on top of the Arc de Triomphe, staring at the Eiffel Tower, and saying my heartfelt goodbyes, I wanted to have a memorable lunch in Paris on my last day there. Kong was in my list for must-visit restaurants but I was having second thoughts. What if the place is too chic for me? Will the people intimidate me? Ah, what the heck, I’m going anyway! 

From Champs-Élysées, it was only a few metro stops to Pont Neuf. It didn’t take long to find the building address for 1 Rue du Pont Neuf. From the entrance, I took the elevator to the 5th floor where I was greeted by the hostess.

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I told the hostess I didn’t have a reservation but it didn’t seem to be a problem. She asked me to follow her upstairs and we both walked up to the green stairs to the restaurant.

The top floor is a stunning indoor rooftop glass terrace and the Philippe Starck decor is inspired by the ultramodern Franco-Japanese designs. The chairs were designed with three faces representative of the Kong spirit–a geisha (which is also on the ceiling), one that resembles Audrey Hepburn, and a more modern anime-like face.

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img_1037The restaurant has magnificent views of the Seine River and Pont Neuf Bridge (if you are lucky enough to get a good seat near the window) and the abundance of natural light makes the restaurant even more spectacular. And by the way, I disagree with Juliette, this place is far from hideous!

 The two servers were both very attractive. The waiter who first served me wore a black suit and the waitress who later came to give me my tea and check wore a mini skirt and a cross body bag (I was actually surprised that she was the server and initially assumed she  was a customer).

 I ordered the dim sum platter and a glass of red wine. I didn’t specify which wine assuming he’d give me the house wine but later was shocked to learn that he gave me a very expensive glass (it cost me €18!). But I have no complaints because the wine was excellent!

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There were only a few people in the restaurant when I arrived and patrons who came later were mostly Asians. Sex and the City must have been popular in Asia too! They were well dressed, just as you would expect. But their selfie taking was irritating the two gentlemen seated near the window, rolling their eyes at every selfie pose.

They were actually entertaining to watch and gave me something to laugh about. It was like a scene in a comedy show. Towards the end of my meal, I noticed that the restaurant hadn’t been crowded the entire time I was there. I suspected that since it was Sex and the City that made it famous, perhaps it is now in its decline? I looked at my watch and didn’t realize it was already 3pm (which explains the almost empty restaurant).

When I left Kong, I was glad to have had the opportunity to follow one of Carrie’s footsteps in Paris. Walking along the Pont Neuf bridge, I realized my time in Paris rates as one of my most favorite travel experiences. I was afraid that in my solitude I would get lonely or bored, but it turns out I loved every minute of my time alone, and more importantly, my own company.

I’ll always have Paris… 

“I need to move around a bit. To shuffle my surroundings. To wake up in cities I don’t know my way around and have conversations in languages I cannot entirely comprehend. There is always this tremendous longing in my heart to be lost, to be someplace else, to be far far away from all of this.”

My life had its share of ups and downs. It has seen a lot of heartaches and disappoitments. After my son’s relapse with cancer, life hasn’t exactly gone back to normal. Life at home is just as stressful as it was. Besides tending to my younger son’s medical and everyday needs, my husband has been suffering  from anxiety attacks. I used to think it was just a once-every-few-months occurrence but lately the attacks have  been occurring with increasing frequency. They often strike out of the blue without any warning even when the atmosphere is relaxed. I also worry about my older son. He recently came out and it was revealed to us in his blog that he’d been bullied in high school. Since this revelation, I’ve been worried sick about him. I’ve been concerned about his happiness and finding love, as I’ve been made aware by my gay friends that a homosexual lifestyle can be very lonely. I think about him a lot and sometimes I make myself sick by overly agonizing about his well-being. And as for me, I believe I still have PTSD. I’ve had countless of sleepless nights drowning  in sorrow. I have done everything to help alleviate the loneliness. I walked. I hiked. I wrote. I read. But no matter what I did, there’s always that feeling that something was still missing.

Perhaps I needed to take time away for myself to recharge my batteries and travel somewhere I’d always wanted to go. In a city where I could do as I wished without regard to what a traveling companion wanted to do. Where I was entirely alone and free. And to be far away from all of this.

I’ve always had this fantasy of being in Paris alone. To wander in the city, without any destination in mind. To go where the moment takes me. To stop rushing from place to place. I want to experience Paris. I want to take chances and have adventures. To learn the art of talking less. To take my time and savor each Parisian minute. To stay at a cafe and survey the scene. Take pictures of anything and everything that catches my eye. To contemplate. To have Paris all by myself, my way.

And I did just that….and more.

I also got to do some of the (touristy) things I missed out on in my previous visits. I have stood in front of the Eiffel Tower many times before  but never got the chance to climb it (that’s because none of my companions wanted to).
And so it was the very first thing I did on this trip.

I didn’t only climb the Eiffel Tower but treated myself to a wonderful lunch at the 58 Tour Eiffel.  For about $50, I had a three course lunch with wine and tea. Was the food good? It wasn’t spectacular. Was it worth it? Absolutely!

I also learned to use a tripod, and taught myself to be self-indulgent by taking a lot of pictures of me. I loved it for a change!

Like the Eiffel Tower, I have never made it on top of the Arc de Triomphe in my previous visits.

And so once again, I climbed another famous structure! The benefits of solo travel!

I took a million pictures of the Eiffel Tower in various filters. Regardless of how many times I have seen this tower, I can’t get tired of it. It never gets old. Paris never gets old.

I wanted to get lost in the moment, to go anywhere without a destination in mind, to walk around aimlessly, and…I did! My wish, granted: I wandered, got lost, but found my way back. Now I know what it means when people say do not be afraid to get lost!

But once again, I got lost…this time in the company of books at Shakespeare And Company,

Someday I’ll remind myself these words by Hafiz: I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.

And to also remember that little things can instantly bring a ray of sunshine such as a free bench.

I went for a walk at Jardin du Tuileries, to contemplate life…

and to admire the beauty of the autumn leaves.

Reminding myself once again that no matter what life brings, it is still beautiful just like those flowers in bloom…

To always stop and appreciate the moment. To look around me in awe and be grateful at how lucky I am to be surrounded by such beauty.

One of the great pleasures of being in Paris, that is truly très magnifique, is the art of cafe-sitting. And no one can deny that this city is a gastronomical dream!

I had tea at Mariage Fréres.

I indulged on a cup of rich hot thick chocolat at Angelina.

They say, “To err is human. To loaf is a Parisian.” My daily petit dejeuner were croissants and baguettes.

I drank wine. Every. Single. Day.

But I also ate light on some nights and had this fantastic Salade Nicoise with tuna at a bistro near my hotel. It was so good I went back twice.

I looked up at every building and swooned over the architecture,

and took pictures of whatever that caught my eyes.

I declared that my most favorite metro station is the Abbesses,

and spent a whole afternoon in the Bohemian and artsy Montmartre.

And there, in Montmartre, I found the wall. No, not Donald Trump’s wall, but a wall where love comes together in every language: Le mur des Je t’aime,

I love you wall.

Although Paris is the city of love, it is the perfect place to be alone. It is perfect for strolling by yourself without the constraints of pleasing somebody. Since I usually travel with my family I didn’t realize that this adventure gave me the opportunity to be completely selfish–something I don’t normally get to be when I’m at home. I almost forgot what it felt like to not have to worry about anyone but myself.  It took a lot for me to finally take a step and just go. I left feeling lost, lonely, and wanting to escape life. I was hopeful that during my alone time, I would find myself in the mystery of a new place.

I pondered each night on how much I learned about myself on this trip. I wrote journals with pensive thoughts: what had happened, I wrote, to the woman who loved spontaneity and great adventures? Had she disappeared?

Somehow, when I disconnected myself from the usual habits, I reconnected with myself. Perhaps this is what traveling alone usually does: you rediscover and reconnect with yourself.


Oh, but then again, I wasn’t completely alone. Paris was there with me the entire time–to accompany me on my journey of self discovery. And whenever I start to feel lonely again, or feel that life is passing me by, I will remind myself that I’ll always have Paris.

 

A Feast for the senses: The picturesque village of Les Baux-de-Provence 

“Everyone who comes to visit, always asks me to bring them to Les Baux-de-Provence!” Michel told me. I can understand why. Beauty is not only something that pleases the eyes, but also pleases the other senses and this is how I describe Les Baux-de-Provence.

The scenery from Avignon to Les Baux was truly unforgettable–passing through vineyards, Sycamore tree-lined roads, olive fields, and hilltop chateaus. It somehow didn’t feel real. It’s like watching a scene in a travel show or in a movie. Except I was in it. I read somewhere that travel can sometimes feel like a dream. When you’re jet-lagged, it can be hard to tell whether you’re actually awake. A good hard pinch is often the only way to know for sure. I think I have pinched myself quite a few times during this trip. 😜


Perched on the top of the rock, Les Baux-de-Provence is located in the foothills of the Alpilles mountains. It is listed as a heritage site that has won titles such as “one of the most beautiful villages in France.” Before going up to the village, both Michels mentioned we were going to an “art show with music” first but with their limited English, I couldn’t visualize such description. My expectations were low but what I didn’t anticipate was I was about to experience a mind-blowing, out-of-this-world, totally immersive and exhilarating experience!

 Carrières de Lumières is a sound and light art show in a magnificent setting–in a limestone quarry! The art of world famous artists, with the use of numerous video projectors and 3D audio, are projected onto the quarry’s floors and walls accompanied by enchanting music. I have never seen anything like it!

This year’s art were of Bosch, Brueghel, and Arcimboldo’s. After forty minutes of mesmerizing visual and sound, I was still in a dreamy state when we walked up to the village of Les Baux. (Visitors must park in the lower part of the town and walk up to the historic village).


Wandering the old cobblestone streets, visitors will find charming cafés, souvenir shops, and art galleries. This dreamy, medieval, semi-ruined Provençal village is definitely well worth the visit especially for its picturesque setting and breathtaking views.

Michel suggested to go to La Reinne Jeanne for lunch, a French/Mediterranean restaurant that has gotten excellent reviews. Unfortunately we couldn’t get a table. It’s really too bad because the food seemed delicious and the restaurant had a nice view.


We could another restaurant that wasn’t too crowded. As we sat, the owner/server explained what’s in the menu, then she suggested (speaking in French) that “the mademoiselle can have a burger.” The three of us laughed once she left our table. First, she called me a mademoiselle (ahem, I’m maybe too old to be called that). Second, she suggested for me to have a burger. “Perhaps she could sense you’re from Texas!” Michel laughingly said.


The Dejeuner du Jour were explained to me as follows: lamb, duck, beef, and fish. I asked for fish since I rarely eat meat  (except for chicken and occasionally pork). Somehow something was lost in translation because my fish turned out to be squid. It’s a good thing Provençal cooking is delicious. My squid was perfectly cooked, not rubbery at all.


On the drive back to Avignon, we stopped at a perfume “museum.” I wasn’t overly impressed with it and probably the least of my favorites among the things I did/see in the Provence area. I wish we had gone to a winery instead! 😜

My pictures couldn’t capture the beauty of Les Baux-de-Provence but it was definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to. I just wish it wasn’t very touristy but when a place is this beautiful, France has no choice but to share it to the world.

From London to Avignon: a six hour journey via Eurostar 

After spending a night in London, I was ready to embark on my next adventure—a detour to Avignon before going to my final destination (Paris). Eurostar. the high speed train to Avignon is approximately six hours from London’s St. Pancras International. What an incredible train ride this was!

After spending a night in London, I was ready to embark on my next adventure—a detour to Avignon before going to my final destination (Paris). The high speed train to Avignon is approximately six hours from London’s St. Pancras International. Knowing I would be sitting for that long, I decided to get a premiere standard seat. I was, in fact, willing to splurge and tried to purchase the business premiere (I promised to spoil myself in this trip 😜) but too bad they were all sold out!

There are three direct routes to Avignon from London weekly (Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays), otherwise you’d have to stop in Paris and transfer from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon. Not exactly what I wanted to do.


My seat was facing another seat and fortunately no one showed up or we would be touching toes the entire trip. The train was half empty which made it a relaxing trip. As I settled comfortably in my seat, the stewards brought my petit dejeuner—a tray with croissants, jam, yogurt, bottled water, and tea. Trains are so much more enjoyable than airplanes, unless of course you fly first or business class and it’s unfortunate we don’t have the option of high speed trains in the United States!

I wanted to stay awake, hoping I wouldn’t miss the beautiful scenery outside. But jet lag took control of my body and ended up snoozing pretty much the entire time. I was awoken by the sound of the cart being pushed around.  “Madam, would you like cheese bake or chicken?” the steward asked me. I was getting lunch too??? I thought the meal service ended with the breakfast! The $185 (one-way) I paid for this ticket was definitely worth it. In fact, it’s much cheaper than most one way plane tickets within the United States! (It cost us over $800 round trip from Dallas to Hawaii and all we got were peanuts and drinks for eight hours!)

I chose the more familiar dish (chicken) since I don’t know what a cheese bake is. Bristish food perhaps? The chicken actually tasted good! The lunch also came with a choice of wine—red, white, or rosé—but I opted out from drinking anything that’ll put me back to sleep.

I checked my watch and we were two hours away from destination. I thought of the time I went to visit my friend Michel in Avignon twenty-something years ago. I met him on a New York flight I worked as a flight attendant and we kept in touch by exchanging letters. Since then he’s moved to a different house, broke up with Alain (the partner he was with at the time), met Jacques (but unfortunately cancer took his life), then met another man (whom he is currently married), and has traveled the world (he was in Nepal during the massive earthquake in 2010). I wondered if we would recognize each other when we see each other at the TGV station.


I decided to go to Avignon because I wanted to see Michel again. Also, I didn’t get to see much of the Provence region when I went. My cousin came with me and she insisted on going to Nice and Monaco as well. Big mistake. That’s what happens when you travel with other people—you get easily manipulated by their plans and you often give up what you wanted to do. That’s why I’m doing this solo travel, because it’s time for me to do what want to do.

When I arrived in Avignon, I immediately spotted Michel waiting on the platform. He told me I haven’t changed much (I’ll take that as a compliment 😊). He introduced me to his partner/husband whose name is also Michel. He didn’t speak much English but thank God for google translation! We arrived at their house and fell in love with its Provençal themed decor (it’s at least how I envisioned a home in the Provence region—warm, cozy, colorful, and charming). I felt right at home.

One Night in London

My travel bucket list has three categories:
1. Piece of cake…easily achievable!
2. Hmmm…it’s going to be difficult but it will happen someday!
3. Ummm…in another lifetime perhaps?

But before I start talking about my travel bucket list, let me tell you about a trip I did approximately ten years ago with my mom and my aunt in London.

My travel bucket list has three categories:

1. Piece of cake…easily achievable!

2. Hmmm…it’s going to be difficult but it will happen someday!

3. Ummm…in another lifetime perhaps?


But before I start talking about my travel bucket list, let me tell you about a trip I did approximately ten years ago with my mom and my aunt in London. I was (sort of) their tour guide and did all the planning for them. Since I have already seen most of the tourist attractions in London, all I really wanted to do in this trip was to experience an English tradition: an afternoon tea and possibly at Harrods (I fell in love with Harrods tea a long time ago). I invited my mom and my aunt but they weren’t too keen on the idea. A waste of time and money, they said. I could’ve made them wait for me while I did it alone but I didn’t. I was worried I’d inconvenience them with my trivial ideas (so I thought) and I dismissed the only one thing that was in my to-do list in London.


A decision I have regretted for ten long years! And hence I added, “doing an afternoon tea at Harrods” on my bucket list. Although this one falls easily in the first category, it was only a matter of when?

For those of you who follow my blog know that I have been through a lot lately and have had occasional bouts of depression. God knows I tried to snap out of it but nothing I did helped. My dear friend who works for American Airlines knew I’ve been dreaming about doing a solo trip someday so she suggested I use her flight pass and go somewhere I can be alone. I thought of going to different cities or countries I haven’t been to but all I could think of was going to Paris. I have been to Paris many times before but I’ve always had a romanticized idea of Paris, of having an alone time with the city of love (or lights, whatever you prefer). Yeah the thought of just Paris and me sounded really good. If New York is my soulmate, its European counterpart is Paris. A woman can have multiple soulmates can’t she?😊

My hotel in London

A non-revenue pass is on a standby basis, only occupying seats that have not been purchased by paying customers. My friend told me that Paris is going to be much harder due to its constantly full flights. If I didn’t mind rerouting to London, she said, I would have a much better chance of leaving Dallas. Are you kidding me! Why on earth would I mind London? Besides I have an unfinished business there! I soon packed my bags and I was ready to fulfill that bucket list.

Eight and a half hours later, I arrived in London Heathrow International Airport and took the tube to my hotel. I dropped off my bags and immediately headed towards Harrods. I’ve forgotten how wonderful London is and how easy it is to navigate this city. Gosh, I love London too!


Harrods is huge! How could I have forgotten about this? London is easier to navigate than the store! I asked the employees for directions and where The Tea Room was. They said they have a lot of tea rooms. No, there’s a restaurant here called The Tea Room, I said. Geez, not even the employees knew their way around the store! Well, you can go to The Georgian, someone suggested to me. I thought to myself, no, The Georgian is too fancy for me. I want somewhere that’s a little more down to earth but can still be prissy. Afternoon tea is prissy regardless of where it is anyway! The employee gave me a booklet, a guide for each floor in the store. And so there it was, I found The Tea Room, on the second floor.


I chose the “Wedgwood” that came in a three-tiered stand with a selection of finger sandwiches, scones, jams, cake, and a cup of tea. It costs £35, definitely a splurge, but I’ve waited for ten years to do this, so what the hell!


I sat there watching the people devour on the scones, absolutely the most delicious scones I’ve ever tasted (the British surely know their scones). I had no idea how I’d finish everything but I didn’t care. All it mattered was I was there, having an afternoon tea at Harrods.


I found a park nearby my hotel and decided to go for a walk. It was a beautiful evening and the weather was just perfect. I sat on one of the benches and I contemplated on the day’s event. I asked myself, am I really here or is this another one of those dreams I don’t want to wake up from? Should I pinch myself? Nah, I don’t really want to wake up if it is indeed a dream! Surely, an afternoon tea for a bucket list may sound lame and simple but whoever said a bucket list must be grand and complicated?